Cutty Sark Voyages 1870-1922: The Hell-Ship Voyage

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Cutty Sark Voyages 1870-1922: The Hell-Ship Voyage

Few of Cutty Sark’s voyages were without incident, but the most dramatic was surely her twelfth, when a killing took place on board. This is how the young apprentice Charles Sankey might have remembered his time on the ship.


Cutty Sark apprentice Charles Sankey, as an old man © National Maritime Museum, London

Cutty Sark apprentice Charles Sankey, as an old man
© National Maritime Museum, London

Charles Sankey: My name is Charles Sankey and I’ve just got off Cutty Sark in New York. What a voyage! I’ve been at sea for nearly two years and I’m still not home.

I joined Cutty Sark in London on the thirteenth of May 1880, one of four apprentices, all of us working towards our junior officer’s certificate. There were only twelve seamen: the ship’s masts and yards had just cut been down in size by nine feet or more, so that they wouldn’t need such a big crew.  So, counting all the officers, the whole crew was only 22.

Capt James Smith Wallace, Master of Cutty Sark 1878- 1880

Capt James Smith Wallace, Master of Cutty Sark 1878- 1880

The captain, Captain Wallace, was one of those fine men who saw his job as not only guiding his ship quickly and safely, but also to teach us, the next generation of ships’ officers. We all had great respect for him. Unlike his first mate, Sydney Smith. Smith was the exact opposite to the captain, he was a great bully of a man, as tough with his fists as with his tongue. I should have known there would be trouble. We sailed from London to Penarth, to pick up a cargo of coal which we were supposed to take to the American navy fleet in Japan. But as soon as we docked in Penarth, just days after leaving London, five of the crew deserted.  Somehow, the captain managed to find replacements, but they weren’t up to much. The worst was an American called John Francis. I heard later he was really a cook, but as an able seaman he was useless. And of course First Mate Smith picked on him mercilessly. I even heard him say, many times: “Please jump overboard.” Once, I don’t know why, he punched Francis so hard on the head that blood was coming out of his ears. It took Francis two days in his bunk to recover from that.

Stormy weather, detail from Cutty Sark – A day in the life © Patrick Hearne

Stormy weather, detail from Cutty Sark – A day in the life
© Patrick Hearne

But worse was to come. We’d just rounded the tip of South Africa and were into the Indian Ocean when we ran into a hard blowing shifting wind. It was a dark and dreadful night, raining heavily. We were all on deck lowering sail. Smith shouted out to Francis to ease one of the ropes. For a while Francis seemed to ignore him but eventually he did take notice, but he did more than loosen that rope – he let it go altogether, and its end dropped into the sea.  Smith of course was already in one of his tempers. He bellowed to Francis that he’d come up to the anchor deck and heave him overboard. And Francis told him if he tried, he had a capstan bar waiting for him. So Smith ran forward, grabbed a broken capstan bar himself from off the top of the windlass, jumped up onto the fo’c’s’le and brought it crashing down onto Francis’s head.

Capstan bars on Cutty Sark © Cutty Sark Trust

Capstan bars on Cutty Sark
© Cutty Sark Trust

We carried Francis down to the ’tween deck, but he never opened his eyes, never uttered a sound. By the next evening he was dead. Now, the funny thing was that, although Francis had said he had armed himself with a capstan bar, none of us saw anything in his hands. But Captain Wallace made some of the crew sign a statement that Smith had acted in self-defence. I can’t explain this  – it was almost as if Smith had some hold over him. Not only that  –-the capstan bar Smith had used to clobber Francis was just lying there on the anchor deck for days, but just before we reached our next port of call Captain Wallace picked it up and dropped it overboard.

Cutty Sark at sea, 1880s  © Cutty Sark Trust

Cutty Sark at sea, 1880s
© Cutty Sark Trust

A few days later we were anchored at Anjer, on the tip of Java, at the entrance to the South China Sea. We all expected that Smith would be brought before the magistrates, but, lo and behold, he managed to escape from Cutty Sark. He got away altogether on an American ship. He could only have done this with Captain Wallace’s help.

Of course, the seamen were furious. Nobody had liked Francis, but bully mates need to be brought to heel. There was almost a mutiny and the men refused to work so it was pretty much left to us apprentices to sail the ship on towards Japan. But we didn’t realise the torment our captain was going through. He’d forced men to sign a false statement; he’d destroyed evidence; he’d helped Smith escape. Surely all this would come out when we reached Japan. And he knew that that would be end of his career. But in fact that came much sooner. In the middle of the night, he stepped over the rail behind the helmsman and into the middle of the South China Sea. He was never seen again.

Steering wheel and taff rail of Cutty Sark  © National Maritime Museum, London

Steering wheel and taff rail of Cutty Sark
© National Maritime Museum, London

We never got to Japan. We headed back to Java – I had to navigate the ship – where a new captain joined us – William Bruce, who had joined us from the Hallowe’en. He was a nasty, hypocritical drunk: it’s difficult to choose between him and Smith as to who was the worst character.  We took Cutty Sark to Singapore, where the coal cargo was unloaded in Singapore and from there we sailed on to Calcutta, where we lay at anchor for four months. Melbourne was our next port of call, but one crewman was washed overboard before we got there. And once we did arrive, we discovered we had cholera on board. Three of the men died.

Halloween  © National Maritime Museum, London

© National Maritime Museum, London

We’d lose another man overboard before the voyage was over, but it’s lucky we didn’t all die. Captain Bruce had no idea how to provision a ship. Our final destination was New York but by the time we were in the mid-Atlantic, we were down to the last few biscuits. If we hadn’t managed to hail first a German ship and then a Royal Navy warship, who both gave us a few supplies, we would have starved. By the time we finally berthed in New York, it was 697 days since we’d left London.

The route of the ship's 12th voyage, lasting 697 days  © Cutty Sark Trust

The route of the ship’s 12th voyage, lasting 697 days
© Cutty Sark Trust

Captain Bruce lost his job when the ship owner found out how useless he was. And you’ll be pleased to know that Smith didn’t get away with killing Francis. A couple of years later, in London, one of my old shipmates spotted him. He was arrested and tried for murder but convicted of manslaughter. He was sentenced to seven years hard labour.

Announcer: This is just one of the many stories of Cutty Sark that you can explore on the ship. She is now permanently docked in Greenwich, just 20 minutes from the centre of London. Come on board and discover why she is one of the most famous ships in the world.

Cutty Sark

Cutty Sark 2013
© National Maritime Museum, London


One Comment so far:

  1. Simon Daniels says:

    Brilliant! As Senior Lecturer in maritime law at Warsash Maritime Academy, I sometimes use this story to illustrate the evolution of the Master’s accountability under Flag State law – the Master’s position in law is much the same today as it was 130 years ago – but your information is much more detailed than mine!

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